The Grand is an experiment in mockumentary filmmaking, wholeheartedly embracing a genre that can be either brilliantly funny or depressingly tedious all depending on execution. Zak Penn and co-writer Matt Bierman’s film has flashes of the former but too often veers into the latter with pointless in-jokes and silly digressions that distract from the good-natured skewering of televised poker championships The Grand proposes to be. With a narrative as flimsy as a paper umbrella in a fruity drink (it’s a, uh, televised poker championship in Las Vegas), Penn and Bierman rely on their cast of actors to improvise, improvise, improvise, but the best improvisation cannot conceal what is in essence an under-scripted, overacted mess.
There isn’t so much a central plotline as a number of character based subplots leading up to one ultimate setting: the final table at the Grand Poker Championship in Las Vegas, thus the title of the film. It is here that the cast of The Grand is competing for a $10 million dollar prize each with their own agenda and reason for wanting the money. This might be a good conceit in a film where the characters were individually fleshed out and realistic enough to be believed as contestants in a poker championship. Disappointingly, the group of characters the film focuses on are stereotypical and played out: there is the “Dune” obsessed numbers geek (Chris Parnell) who still lives with his mother, the lovable drug addict with a big cash shortage (Woody Harrelson, naturally), the lucky amateur (Richard Kind), the calculating German (Werner Herzog), and, wait for it, the girl (Cheryl Hines).
Though Hines and Parnell are reliably good (and Kind as hayseed Andy Andrews is charming), the biggest surprise in The Grand is how adeptly funny Werner Herzog is. As The German, Herzog brings some unexpected levity to his role and livens up the proceedings with an evil smile and hilarious dialogue. The German refers to coffee as “a beverage of the cowards”, all the while cuddling a fluffy white rabbit named Munchkin. Sadly he is removed from the picture too soon, leaving only the cookie cutter characters behind. .
The actors, at least, seem to be having a great time throwing out ideas and enjoying each other’s company, and it’s enjoyable for us too at first. However, after 20 minutes with no master narrative in sight, the antics of the on screen cease to be so amusing. The Grand plods along in a pedestrian manner until a winner is decided, but by then the characters have so long outstayed their welcome that we’re glad just to be rid of them. Maybe if you’re a poker fan this is not the case, but somehow I don’t think so. .
The poker-crazed subcultural world that apparently bubbles beneath the surface of American life seems to be an arbitrary choice for the setting of this film. It’s as if Penn and Bierman picked it simply because it offered a suitably nutty cast of characters and generally workable structure, not because they found it fascinating and worth parodying. If Penn and Bierman don’t really care about their subject, it’s nearly impossible for the audience to. The best mockumentaries always take their subject matter completely seriously and play it straight, making the proceedings all the more ludicrous and thusly hilarious. The Grand has some of these moments but is too off-the-cuff and flippant to truly be illuminating. Or funny.